Man who sat on death row exonerated after questioning bite evidence

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After years of fighting a murder conviction that relied heavily on questionable evidence, a Mississippi man who has spent more than a quarter of a century behind bars got his case dismissed last week.

The man, Eddie Lee Howard, 67, was left on death row even though his conviction was based on little more than bite marks on a murder victim, which were presented as evidence at his trial by an expert whose testimony has since been called into question. .

Mr. Howard’s capital murder conviction was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court last year and he was released in December. Last week, a judge approved a motion from the Lowndes County District Attorney’s Office to dismiss the case.

“I agree with the Supreme Court that the bite evidence has been scrutinized,” said District Attorney Scott Colom. “Other than this evidence, nothing else put Mr. Howard at the scene of the murder.”

Mr Colom added that the TBEN of a weapon at the scene of the crime had been shown to belong to someone other than Mr Howard. “It could be considered as an exculpatory matter,” he said.

In 1994, Mr. Howard was convicted of the 1992 murder of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp, who was found dead at her home in Lowndes County, Mississippi. Kemp also had injuries consistent with rape – but no visible bite marks.

The expert testimony on bite marks came from Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who was approached by prosecutors across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. He said the bite marks on the body of Mrs. Kemp, which he had found using ultraviolet light, matched Mr. Howard’s teeth.

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But attorneys representing Mr. Howard argued that the bite marks were not a reliable form of forensic evidence.

“The reality is that there has never been any evidence against Eddie Lee Howard,” said Chris Manufacturer, attorney for Mr. Howard and director of strategic litigation with Project Innocence. “It’s amazing.”

Bite evidence has played a role in hundreds of cases, and its use in Ted Bundy’s 1979 trial propelled them into the public spotlight.

“As it began to be accepted into the courtroom, no one was really contesting its scientific validity,” said Mary Bush, a professor at Buffalo School of Dentistry, an expert in forensic dentistry and analysis. bites. was an expert witness for Mr. Howard in 2016.

But in the years since, the method has been criticized by experts who find it ineffective.

Because human skin is elastic, bite marks can easily warp, Dr Bush said. “Unless you have TBEN, you really can’t use a bite to identify someone,” she added.

Even Dr. West seems to have questioned their value. Court documents show that in a 2012 deposition for a different case, Dr West said he didn’t think bite-mark analysis should be used in court.

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But when Mr. Manufacturer asked him about that statement in 2016, he did not deny his testimony during Mr. Howard’s murder trial. “I can make mistakes,” he says. “Do I think I made any mistakes in this case?” No.”

Attempts to reach Dr West for comment by telephone on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

At least 26 people in the United States have been wrongfully convicted following bite evidence, according to Project Innocence.

Mr. Howard was locked up in Parchman, a top security prison in the Mississippi Delta. Built on the grounds of a former plantation, the establishment is renowned for its difficult conditions and violent outbreaks.

Mr. Howard has been convicted of the same crime twice. His first capital murder conviction, in 1994, was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1997. But he was tried again in 2000 – when prosecutors brought in Dr. West – and convicted.

At the time, Forrest Allgood was the Lowndes County District Attorney. He also pursued the cases of two other men – Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer – whose convictions were based on a bite analysis. Dr. West also testified in these cases, and those convictions were ultimately quashed.

Mr Allgood did not immediately return a message requesting comment on Wednesday.

Mr. Colom became the county county district attorney in 2015. When Mr. Howard’s case arrived at his office, he said dismissing it was not a difficult decision.

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“This is a great example of why we need to have the capacity in the criminal justice system to look back and correct mistakes,” said Colom, who called for the creation of a unit. wrongful convictions at the state level.

Mr Manufacturer said Mr Howard’s wrongful conviction resulted not only from prosecutors’ reliance on flawed forensics, but deep-rooted structural inequities.

“It’s a story about junk science, but it’s really about the American criminal justice system,” he said. “This is a racist and one-sided prosecution based on the story of an elderly and vulnerable white person attacked by a black man, who was sentenced without due process and sent to a former slave plantation to await execution. .

Mr. Howard, he said, was doing his best to readjust to life outside of prison, taking advantage of things he had no access to before – fresh linens, hot baths – and working in the kitchen of a restaurant.

Mr. Howard was unavailable for comment on Wednesday. But in a statement provided by Mr Manufacturer, Mr Howard thanked those who had fought for his release.

“Without your hard work on my behalf,” he said, “I would still be confined to this terrible place called the Mississippi Penitentiary Department, in the death row, waiting to be executed.”

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